Review Of The Grapes Of Wrath — 4 years ago
It is too soon to see if it will be true of me, but this is the kind of book that changes lives. In my pursuit of literature thusfar, I have found nothing else like it. The characters are real, the writing effective, the story compelling, and the sociological context heartbreaking. I was well aware of the circumstances of the depression and the great migration from the dust bowl on an intellectual level, but Steinbeck’s art makes me understand it in a much more visceral manner.
Although some are more fleshed out than others, none of the Joads seem like stock characters. I am far removed from their experiences, but Grampa’s stubbornness, Uncle John’s psychological issues, and Ma’s determination are entirely familiar. The only characters with whom the reader cannot sympathize are the sheriffs and city folk, and even their actions in their own self-interest are understandable.
Steinbeck is not prone to florid prose; most of the book is written in language that would not be overly difficult for his barely literate characters to understand. I do not know whether or not this is intentional. Unless I am missing them, Steinbeck does not make much use of literary devices, but simply tells the story. The exception, the title’s allusion to the Battle Hymn of the Republic and, through it, to Revelation, is quite clear to even the casual reader. In between those chapters of the novel relating the saga of the Joads and their acquaintances are short vignettes showing a different or wider perspective on the phenomenon, and while the story could have stood on its own, I find them very helpful in drawing the reader into the totality of the experience. I generally am annoyed when an author attempts to write out dialogue to mimic the accent of the speakers, but in this case it draws a stark contrast between the rural sharecroppers and many of the people that they meet.
The story of the Joads is, if the foreword to my edition of the book is accurate, based on the lives of real migrants with whom Steinbeck lived while doing research for the book. Thus, it is no surprise that their sad lives are so very human. Ultimately their story differs only in the details from those of their many fellow travelers and the “little folk” of all times and places. The way the novel ends with a climactic moment while leaving the entire story unresolved, just like the underlying realities of the Okies, is a stroke of genius.
The foreword to my edition was written in the midst of a deep recession, when the rich continued to enhance their wealth and everyone else suffered the cruel bludgeoning of the Invisible Hand. He wisely pointed out the similarities between his time and the setting of the novel, but what was true then is moreso today. Steinbeck seemed to be optimistic that in the near future a change would be a-comin’, and the oppressed of the world would rise up against their oppressors. While there has certainly been progress and few people in the United States are literally starving in today’s weak economy, I must imagine that he would be rather disappointed.